Does Religion Stifle Science?

Post Author: Joel Furches

Joel Furches is a freelance writer who writes and teaches in the areas of Christian News, Apologetics, and Church History. He has a Bachelors in Psychology from Milligan College in Tennessee, a Masters in Education from Goucher College in Maryland, and is the Ratio Christi director at Towson University in Maryland. Joel writes a Christian News column for The Examiner and is on the writing staff for Bible Translation Magazine where he writes monthly articles and has contributed to several books. Joel lives in Jarrettsville, Maryland with his wife and two children, and teaches Apologetics at his local church, Fellowship Chapel. 

Organized religion has stifled science for more than a thousand years. Most of us are familiar with the story of Galileo who discovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe, nor even our sun, but that we were merely one speck among uncountable billions. The church put a stop to him with the threat of torture and death. The same was true of medicine; the study of human anatomy was forbidden.

“Imagine if the church had embraced discovery instead of persecuting scientists and other innovative thinkers. We would be a thousand years ahead of where we are now! Imagine humanity a thousand years into the future. Cancer would be long gone — in fact, every major disease would have been vanquished centuries ago. Is there any doubt we would long ago have traveled to other planets, eased the burdens on our fragile environment and solved all the problems (hunger, energy) we now so dread?

Tragedy of Religion Stifling Science, Stephen Pastore, 2011

Ask most Christians and they will give you the details of when and how they came to believe in Christ. I have no such story. I was born and raised in a Christian home, and went to Sunday School and church all my life. As far as I know, I’ve been saved all my life. My parents sent me to a Christian School from Kindergarten to graduation. I was about as isolated within my Christian culture as a boy could be.

I don’t regret anything about my childhood. However, it does make it very difficult to get a non-Christian to take me seriously. A dramatic conversion story is a far more persuasive testimony than “I just grew up that way.” Frequently, I am simply accused of being brainwashed into my beliefs, and there’s very little I could say to persuade the accuser that I have given my beliefs serious scrutiny and have familiarized myself with other worldviews. The subtleties of my doctrinal choices as an adult are barely worth bringing up.

When I was very young, I became interested in dinosaurs. I poured over books, learning the difficult names, collecting models, and learning all the facts I could find about them. This naturally led to an interest in fossils and archeology. I opened a “dinosaur museum” in my room, putting together hand-made displays with drawings and facts I had learned, attempting to put all my knowledge to some kind of purpose.

When I was in third grade, my teacher kept a rack full of books in the back of the class. They were 20 or so of the same children’s book. It didn’t have pictures, just words. I had never read a chapter book before, but she had so many copies of the book, that I decided that it must be significant, and I gave it a shot.

I found that I could read without pictures, and enjoyed it. With my newfound reading skill, I decided that I could answer any question I might have about the world by reading the appropriate books.

The first burning question I wanted to research was whether or not alien life existed somewhere in the universe. Consequently, I checked out every library book I could find on space.

While the books didn’t mention anything about aliens, what I did learn absolutely captivated me. I was hooked on astronomy, and read everything I could possibly find on the subject, boring family and friends by rehearsing facts I had learned about the universe.

My brothers and I lived on a beautiful, spacious farmland. Our land was adjacent to mile after mile of other farms and forests, and we explored extensively whenever we had a chance. My little brother was always playing with insects, so I attempted to guide him into the world of science through the study of entomology. Together we read copious books on insects, captured and kept them in jars and fish tanks and other containers. We created terrariums and experimented and observed our prizes, making drawings of their body segments, and taking extensive notes. My brother hated that part, but I reminded him that a good scientist always records their findings.

[Years later, I came across a sheet of notes my brother had taken. They were unreadable. Whatever else we were, scribes we were not.]

The books I read as a child were full of scientists mixing together potions and constructing fabulous inventions. I got my mother to buy me chemistry and electronic sets where I created inks, distilled crystals out of a solution and built solar arrays and home-made alarm clocks and weather devices.

Recognizing my thirst for science, my parents subscribed me to Popular Science, and each month I eagerly followed the news in the worlds of robotics and space exploration.

As I graduated to High School, I improved my reading, now delving into books on parallel universes and Stephen Hawkins’s A Brief History of Time.

After I graduated to college, I had boxes and boxes of science equipment and books I had collected as a child that I ended up selling off and passing on to other kids.

I was, as previously mentioned, a fairly sheltered Christian kid. While I was aware of the evolution debate going on inside and outside the Christian community, it never occurred to me to simply accept the explanation “God did it” as a good enough answer and give up any pursuit of science. Exploring, experimenting, and discovering were in no way incompatible with my worldview.

Looking at a universe that was fascinating, complex, and full of discoveries waiting to be discovers and mysteries waiting to be answered; I never thought for a moment that this destroyed the possibility of an intelligent designer or that an intelligent designer destroyed the thrill of discovery. Nor did I think the possibility of design made science predictable or unnecessary.

This story would end perfectly if I became a career scientist. Sadly, I did not. I did, however, get a degree in psychology, which required me to learn statistical analysis, and to form and then conduct psychological experiments which I then analyzed using statistics software (my experiment was on the effects of ambience on memorization and recall).

I am an adult now, with two very young children. I have already enjoyed taking my son, now two, into long walks in the woods. I point out cool things about nature, and try to share my love of discovery with him. He and I have lain outside together at night looking at the stars, and, like me, he can’t keep his eyes off the sky or the wonder out of his face.

In his article Tragedy of Religion Stifling Science, Stephen Pastore sums up the sentiment expressed by a significant portion of the scientific community: science and religion are incompatible; a religious worldview stifles and destroys scientific progress.

Imagine for a moment that the scientific community held to a particular overarching theory that informed almost all scientific modeling and investigation. Imagine that this theory was taken from the writings of a single theorist from long ago. Imagine that this theory was held in almost sacred regard such that any theory that even remotely challenged this worldview was scoffed out of the public arena.

Then imagine that one scientist developed an alternative model that had better explanatory power and was predictive of contemporary scientific observations. Imagine that this one scientist was forcibly silenced before he was allowed to bring his theory before peer review.

The man in this scenario is Galileo Galilei. The scientific model that opposed his was Aristotelian thought. Aristotle was a Greek Philosopher who formed theories on almost every aspect of life including physics, geology, and psychology. He wrote in the 300’s BC, but his teachings came back into vogue in Europe in the 13th century, and formed the basis for all mainstream science up until the Renaissance.  The church rejected Galileo’s theories based not on doctrine or Biblical teachings, but rather because of their commitment to an already established scientific theory.

Galileo was a devout Christian as well as a dedicated and brilliant scientist, just like Johannes Kepler, Rene’ Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, James Prescott Joule, Louis Pasteur, and many more. Galileo’s commitment to his religion in no way interfered with his brilliance or to his discovery. It was, rather, another scientific theory that stifled his own.

In fairness to Pastore’s argument, the Inquisition Church that backed Aristotelian theories had a habit of imprisoning and torturing anyone who disagreed with them; contrary to the teachings of the Jesus they claimed to represent. I agree with Pastore that no monolithic institution should stifle creativity and exploration. No ivory tower group of individuals should refuse to allow theories to see the light of day, or tell individuals to keep ideas to themselves because these ideas contradict the current dogma.

Science and Christianity are not in any way contradictory to one another. Devout women and men from every age have bent over their scientific pursuits with, dare I say, religious fervor. And so did a young boy who didn’t know that he couldn’t like science because he was a Christian.

2 thoughts on “Does Religion Stifle Science?”

  1. The church rejected Galileo’s theories based not on
    doctrine or Biblical teachings, but rather because of their commitment to an already established scientific theory.

    This statement is carefully worded and mostly incorrect.

    First off, Aristotelian cosmology is not, strictly speaking,
    a scientific theory. It was formulated at a time when most science was under the discipline of ‘natural philosophy’. Aristotle believed that the workings of the universe could be discovered simply by reasoning them out. This mode of thinking did gain resurgence in the early middle ages, and it is mostly incorrect. The scientific method, as we understand it, as a process of experimentation, theorizing and falsification, was in its infancy in the early 17th century, with Galileo as one of the trailblazers. Aristotelian cosmology is
    not a ‘scientific theory’ in our modern use of the term.

    Second, Galileo had numerous conflicts with academia and the Catholic Church throughout his life. His
    earliest conflicts were due to his experiments on falling bodies, and the results of these experiments did cause conflicts with other physics professors, who held to Aristotelian philosophy. Later he discovered from parallax measurements that light from a supernova was at least as far away from Earth as Jupiter and Saturn. Again, this caused conflict with his fellow physics professors under the paradigm of Aristotelian philosophy. These conflicts nearly cost Galileo his professorship.

    It was later that Galileo had conflict with the Catholic
    Church, with the charge that his belief in the motion of the earth was at conflict with what is found in the Bible.
    Rebuttals to Galileo were written, and their defense was the citation of Biblical passages. By this time, his influence in science was already assured, but it was also by this time that Galileo was being charged as “an enemy of religion”. His conflicts with the Catholic Church escalated from there.

    It is too simple to say that the church’s rejection of Galileo had nothing to do with Biblical teaching. The church cited the Bible in their charges against Galileo. He was charged as an
    enemy of religion. The church had no commitment to a scientific theory at the time. They relied on a view of cosmology that worked well with their theology – that knowledge could be discovered on reason alone, and that experimentation was unnecessary. This view of the world
    is not scientific reasoning.

  2. I think both points are worth noting. While the term “scientific reasoning” with regard to Aristotle may not be accurate by today’s standards, the scientific revolutions that Thomas Kuhn writes about was at play just as it is today. It takes a while for ideas that have problems to be rejected because of the hold some of them have in the mainstream. Also, I think Furches main point is that it wasn’t just the church that Galileo ran up against. The church may have had a theological viewpoint, but it was informed by general opinions of the day that while misguided, was not all the fault of the church.

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